The Brompton Boilers

From Wikipedia:

“Brompton, sometimes called Old Brompton, survives in name as a ward in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in London. Until the latter half of the 19th century it was a scattered village made up mostly of market gardens in the county of Middlesex. It lay south-east of the village of Kensington, abutting the parish of St Margaret’s, Westminster at the hamlet of Knightsbridge to the north-east, with Little Chelsea to the south. It was bisected by the Fulham Turnpike, the main road westward out of London to the ancient parish of Fulham and on to Putney and Surrey.

The gradual fragmentation and overshadowing of Brompton was probably due to two factors: the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the rapid institutional developments in the area, such as museums and colleges; and the arrival of railway transport. The station built in 1868 on the Metropolitan and District Railways to serve the attendant crowds was named South Kensington, not “Brompton”. A “Brompton Road station” opened in 1906 for the new Great Northern, Piccadilly and Brompton Railway; lack of passengers forced it to close in 1934. Gloucester Road tube station on the other hand, which had opened 1868, was originally called “Gloucester Road, Brompton”, but for simplicity dropped the Brompton from its name. Thus, Brompton ceased to be a place or destination. A nod to Brompton resurfaced in 1866 with Sir John Fowler’s “station in the middle of fields”, West Brompton station.

In 1965 when the historic boroughs of Kensington and Chelsea merged to form one authority, the College of Arms created for it a new coat of arms which included its Brompton roots. The crest contains a broom bush which represents the link between the two former boroughs’ connection with the ‘Brompton’ ward. The area is now part of the Chelsea constituency. In medieval times Brompton was famous for its gorse fields. The name was a corruption of ‘broom tun’, meaning a gorse farm. The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea has confined its “Brompton Conservation Area” to but the small northern part of the historical village of Brompton. The rest of it is partitioned among several other neighbouring conservation areas.”

Melissa Hamnett, Curator, Sculpture, V&A, wrote in the V&A Online Journal (Summer 2015):

“…Known as the Museum of Manufactures when it opened at Marlborough House in 1852, the institution was renamed the South Kensington Museum in 1857, when it moved to its current site on what was then the edge of west London. The name of this early building (belittlingly dubbed the Brompton Boilers by The Illustrated London News in 1857) remained so for more than four more decades until, in 1899, it was renamed the Victoria and Albert Museum. This event was marked by Queen Victoria (1819-1901), who laid the foundation stone for a new and imposing grand entrance designed by the architect, Sir Aston Webb (1849-1930).

Aston Webb’s design had won the 1891 competition administered by the Office of Works, who had invited eight architects to compete in a bid to unify the haphazard site of the South Kensington Museum at the end of the 19th century. The act of renaming the museum marked a triumphant and imperialist phase in the history of the V&A, expressed through Webb’s entrance and façade, which was described by him in a 1909 guide as ‘a great portal finished by an open lantern of the outline of an Imperial crown to mark the character of this great national building’. A key feature of this vast redbrick and Portland stone façade is the elaborate sculptural scheme bridging Cromwell and Exhibition Road. A British Valhalla, it depicts 32 artistic personalities carved by 21 different sculptors. Those depicted include British painters, sculptors, architects and craftsmen who stand within niches between the first floor windows across the entire length of the façade. This is in addition to the arched entrance and central tower adorned with figures of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria. Conceived by Webb to be a vision for the modern museum, his sculpted façade signified the reinvention of Britain in a highly competitive Europe by embracing the spheres of fine and applied art, and articulating a new national consciousness. Accordingly, the architecture integrated traditional precedents, such as the standing niched personages, whose selection and execution was meant to highlight the joining of art and industry. The sculpture was not only a physical manifestation of skill and virtuosity, for the sculptors who carved it were themselves also promoting a new collaboration between multiple professions in a bid to improve the infrastructure of education and patronage, which were to be vital for sculpture’s success.

Despite sculpture’s increasing public presence in Britain from the 1850s onwards, the V&A’s elaborate façade attracts little attention today. Indeed, if passers-by do not take note of the carved figurative subjects, still less do they recognise their sculptural authors. Webb’s extension united what had become a rather piecemeal and confusing complex of buildings by the 1880s, and highlights the associated shift in the relationship between sculpture and architecture. Not only did the building form part of South Kensington’s budding new cultural and technology epicenter, known as Albertopolis, but the sculptural scheme also articulated how craft and industry were increasingly considered interconnected spheres, with Britain and its empire triumphant symbols of economic and cultural change. Conveying narrative and meaning beyond its construction, the façade and its execution can accordingly be seen as a material expression of this wider emerging modernity…”

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